P4P Conversation with Eric Foner Tonight

P4P Conference Call

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

I am looking forward to our conversation this evening with Eric Foner as we explore together his book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Undergroud Railroad.  Bring your questions, and call in and enjoy the dialogue!

In closing, I want to share this note from Dr. Jessie Fields.

Freedom Rising and a Post Modern Moment

In reading Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner I have become more aware of how much our democracy was shaped by the battles of the antislavery movement and the fight for freedom and equality in the years following emancipation. Using Sydney Howard Gay’s newly discovered Record of Fugitives of 1855 and 1856 and other historical documents and records Eric Foner captures the stories of fugitive slaves who reached freedom with the aid of black and white abolitionists. By their acts of running away and resisting slavery the fugitives pushed the nation to confront the brutal inhumanity of slavery. Not all slaves could escape, the ones who did were often aided by other slaves who hid them or provided them with food. Gateway to Freedom also describes the major role that free blacks played in assisting fugitive slaves. Free blacks in Northern cities often took to the streets to fight for the freedom of runaway slaves.

Fugitive slaves seeking freedom played a pivotal role in propelling the expansion of American democracy. Many African Americans who reached freedom in upstate New York, New England or Canada would go on to become active community leaders such as James W.C. Pennington and antislavery spokespersons such as Henry “Box” Brown and agents of the Underground Railroad such as Jermain Loguen in Syracuse, many would fight in the Civil War as did Harriet Tubman and Garland White. Thirteen of the twenty-two blacks elected to Congress during reconstruction were former slaves.

The turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War, the Civil War itself and the period of Reconstruction raised fundamental questions for the American people, questions such as who was an American citizen and what were the rights of a citizen and questions concerning voting rights and equal protection before the law.  It took the Civil Rights and mass movements of the 1960’s to move forward the promise of full equality.

Today the American political process has become a closed calcified system run by the Democratic and Republican Parties. The independent movement is raising fundamental questions such as: to whom does our democracy belong, the people or the parties and whether the parties have the right to use taxpayer funds to conduct “members only primaries”. Here in New York City over the last several months thousands of New Yorkers have signed petitions to Senator Schumer calling for opening up the primary system to all voters and not requiring voters to join a political party to have the right to vote in all rounds of elections. Efforts for primary reform are underway in other states as well.

It is out of the crucible of abolitionism, the Civil War and Reconstruction that the principles of birthright United States citizenship and equal protection before the law arose and were added to the Constitution as the Fourteenth Amendment.

We independents stand on those principles in leading the movement for structural and systemic reform to open up our political process. This is a moment to further develop American democracy that has been advanced by so many including slaves who had no material wealth but gave all. Gateway to Freedom gives testament to their sacrifice and courage.

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.


The Washington Post Reviews Gateway to Freedom


Fugitive slaves could travel the Underground Railroad, a “series of local networks” in cities from Virginia to Canada. (Library of Congress)

                                             January 23, 2015

The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad  By Eric Foner


The Underground Railroad figured prominently in the politics of slavery and freedom in antebellum America. Yet it has confounded modern historians, who have tended either to exaggerate its scope or to dismiss it as largely mythological. In his carefully argued new book, Eric Foner aims to set the record straight. Drawing on his deep expertise in the history of abolitionism, Foner demonstrates that one cannot understand the origins of the American Civil War without taking into account the resistance and activism of fugitive slaves and their antislavery allies.

Foner’s focus is on the beleaguered and intrepid cadre of operatives who ran New York City’s Underground Railroad hub in the 1850s. The city was part of an “interlocking series of local networks” that stretched from Virginia into Canada, constituting the railroad’s Northeastern corridor. The book’s early chapters set the stage, explaining that New York was no bastion of abolitionism but instead a zone of conflict over slavery. Lagging behind other Northern states, the Empire State did not abolish slavery until 1827. Even after abolition, slavery persisted because of an 1817 state law that permitted Southern slaveowners, who thronged Manhattan on business and as tourists, to bring slaves along for up to nine months without those slaves becoming free. Moreover, the problem of kidnapping plagued the city, as it did Philadelphia. Whites routinely seized free blacks, claimed fraudulently that they were slaves and, with the blessing of corrupt local officials, sold them or hauled them off to the South.

These outrages did not go unchallenged. In the 1830s, free black activists in New York, such as David Ruggles and Theodore S. Wright, led a “Vigilance Committee” that combated kidnapping, aided fugitive slaves and lobbied for black civil rights. Working in tandem with white abolitionists such as Lewis Tappan, black activists achieved some notable successes, such as the repeal, in 1841, of the law that had permitted Southern masters to bring their slaves into New York. But fugitives from the South remained in a special legal category, liable, according to the provisions of the U.S. Constitution and a 1793 law, to recapture and rendition. Alarmed by the rise of Vigilance Committees and of antislavery sentiment in the North, Southern slaveholders demanded more vigorous law enforcement.

With the passage in 1850 of a new, more stringent Fugitive Slave Law that enlisted federal marshals and commissioners in slave-catching, the Underground Railroad had to extend its reach beyond the North and into Canada. New York City’s network rose to this challenge, with Sydney Howard Gay, the meticulous and principled editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, emerging as its chronicler and Louis Napoleon, a black porter who worked in Gay’s newspaper office, as its most resourceful agent. Once Foner turns to the stories of these men, his book hits its stride, as he is able to tap a rich and overlooked source: Gay’s remarkable “Record of Fugitives,” which provides detailed accounts of the journeys of about 200 of the more than 1,000 escaped slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s. When cross-referenced with William Still’s equally rich chronicle of fugitive slaves who sojourned in Philadelphia on their way to points north, Gay’s record book makes it possible to explain with great precision both why and how slaves fled slavery.

Fugitives testified to Gay that the primary motivation for slave flight was the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their masters; the second most prominent motive for escape was the grim prospect of sale. Most fugitives left family members behind in the South, while some ran away to be reunited with relatives who had already fled. Many hoped to return to the South to rescue their family members. Fugitives passing through New York most often escaped in groups rather than individually, and they used a wide variety of means. Some paid ship captains for clandestine passage from Southern ports such as Norfolk to the North; others appropriated horses or carriages or set out on foot. Such ruses would not have been possible had slaves not found whites willing, for moral or pecuniary reasons, to help them — whites such as Albert Fountain of Virginia, whose schooner the City of Richmond ran fugitives through Wilmington.

Foner dispels the lingering aura of myth surrounding the Underground Railroad by documenting scores of stirring escapes. For example, he details the May 1856 flight of four fugitives — Ben Jackson, James Coleman, William Connoway and Henry Hopkins — who set out on foot from Dorchester County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, for the distant haven of Canada. They had to run a gauntlet, slipping through the slave state of Delaware and then traversing Pennsylvania and New York, states crawling with slave-hunters who sought to collect the rewards that masters posted for capturing and remanding fugitives. In the end, the four men succeeded, thanks to the ability of local networks to work in concert. Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett secured them passage through Wilmington; Still charted their course from Philadelphia to New York; and Gay sent them to Syracuse and on to Canada. Tubman and Still were African American, Garrett and Gay were white — the Underground Railroad, like the broader abolitionist movement, represented the possibility of an interracial politics in which whites and blacks not only made common cause but also shared leadership roles.

With antislavery newspapers trumpeting its success, the Underground Railroad was by the mid-1850s a quasi-public institution and the target of slaveholders’ growing anger and resentment. But for all its success, the Underground Railroad’s story is not one of linear progress. Fugitives in New York remained on precarious footing; as Foner notes, “New York City’s ties with the slave South seemed to solidify as the sectional conflict deepened.” Not until the Civil War started did the antislavery movement gain inexorable momentum. A mass wartime exodus of slaves from Southern farms and plantations to Union lines motivated Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the belated repeal, in 1864, of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The freedom struggle would grind on, against terrible odds. But the Underground Railroad had provided it with heroes, as beacons to the light the way.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

P4P Field Trip: Exploring the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn

Plymouth Church

Historic Brooklyn Underground Railroad Site

P4P NYC members and friends visit Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Photo: June Hirsh

P4P NYC members and friends visit Plymouth Church in Brooklyn

After coming across Plymouth Church while reading Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Professor Eric Foner, Jessica Marta suggested that we organize a field trip to visit the church.  On Sunday, 25 Politics for the People NYC members and friends visited the church, which had been part of the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.

We were given a wonderful tour by Ms. Lois Rosebrooks, Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours. As we sat in the church’s original pews Ms. Rosebrooks gave us a very moving account of the church’s anti-slavery activism under the leadership of Henry Ward Beecher.

Lois Rosebrooks, (standing) the Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours, speaks with P4P group.

Lois Rosebrooks, (standing) the Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours, speaks with P4P group.

In 1847 Henry Ward Beecher became Plymouth Church’s first minister. He actively aided fugitive slaves, raised money for their freedom and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law. As Eric Foner writes:

“Beecher helped to raise funds for the New York State Vigilance Committee, and his church provided shelter to fugitives. From his pulpit he held mock “auctions” of female slaves, to raise money from parishioners to purchase their freedom.” (Gateway to Freedom, page 117)

Abraham Lincoln attended Plymouth Church when he visited New York City to give his Cooper Union Address in 1860. In fact he was initially invited to speak at Plymouth Church but the location was moved to Cooper Union. The day before the Cooper

The plague on the pew where Abraham Lincoln sat.

The plague on the pew where Abraham Lincoln sat.

Union speech which propelled his presidential campaign, Lincoln attended services at Plymouth Church. In the church garden is an engraving of Lincoln sitting in a pew at the church.

In 1863 Beecher was asked by President Lincoln to travel to Great Britain to speak there in support of the Union cause, which Beecher did and he helped prevent Britain from siding with the confederacy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the church in 1963 and Ms. Rosebrooks was in the church choir at the time. She described Mahalia Jackson saying to Dr. King, “give them the dream speech Martin, give them the dream speech!” Dr. King then tossed away his prepared remarks and gave a passionate sermon on the “American Dream”.

We were thrilled to visit and explore the history together. For P4P members from out of town, if you are in New York City at any point, I hope that you will visit the church which is located at 75 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights.

—Dr. Jessie Fields

 Some P4P members share their impressions:

From Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White:

It was great seeing everyone at the tour of Plymouth Church!  My daughters shared that it was amazing, intriguing & somewhat an emotional experience to know that Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass & Martin Luther King visited Plymouth Church.

NYC P4P Members and friends at Plymouth Church

NYC P4P Members and friends at Plymouth Church

To be able to visit such an historical place was mind blowing!

I thought for Beecher to take such a risk during that time period was incredibly brave & unselfish!  To know that he didn’t succumb to the common rhetoric & racism toward Black folks or people different from the norm is to be celebrated immensely! I also enjoyed the guide’s own personal story & how it was revealed that her own father was a member of Plymouth Church, which solidified her personal connection to the church.

It was much enjoyed!

Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White.


Impressions and Observations – Tour of Plymouth Church, April 12, 2015 (154 years to the day after the start of the Civil War) From Richard Patik

Being in a spot where famous people stood and spoke and sat in Plymouth Church and who helped develop and lead a movement to end slavery — I recalled a statement Lenora Fulani made at a community organizing event in the Bronx late last year. Several hundred people came to this event, myself included, expecting to hear great things and for Lenora and other leaders to take charge and change things as they are. Dr. Fulani said, “Who’s going to change the world? You are who is going to change the world.”

I am reminded from this visit to Plymouth Church — where Henry Ward Beecher preached, Abraham Lincoln visited, Clara Barton and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King spoke — that we often look to “great people” to change our world, to overthrow old ways of how we ourselves or our world is organized — not feeling our own power to do so. Not feeling our own power, nor our responsibility.

Hearing the history of this historic church from the very knowledgeable Ms. Rosebrooks we can see that movements start small, they involve many people, many voices who take unpopular positions and uncomfortable risks, doing “weird” things (as Beecher did raising funds to supply rifles to Kansas Free-soilers or in holding mock slave auctions in front of the congregation to put a face on the indignities of slavery (for both slave and slaver), all the while leading a respectable congregation. And currents of change also begin flowing because others [the congregation in this case] say “Yes” to these risks and weirdness and something has a chance to be built that wasn’t before. Yes, and someone invites us on a tour, we come and now we collectively have this experience which might lead to…

We were reminded, too, in this tour that change and re-organization takes time. Many ordinary actions take place over time, in fits and starts, behind the ones that make history books or sound bites on the news. It’s a compilation of a lot of ordinary efforts by ordinary people who together find the courage to LOOK at uncomfortable or deplorable things and speak about them and give new performances they don’t even know how to give. And in so doing inspire others to do the same. Even generations later.

 Our ‘group picture’ in the process of forming, in front of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. What we will be-come caught in a moment of organizing activity.

Warm regards,  Richard   


I loved joining the Politics for the People Book Club at Plymouth Church. The presentation was a fascinating and inspiring history of Plymouth Church and the role Rev.Henry Ward Beecher played in establishing it as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. I was especially proud to be there learning this history with all of us!

Vicki Wallace

From June Hirsh 

I found it amazing to learn more about the bravery of ordinary people who stood up against the horrors and injustice of slavery when most everyone looked the other way – or supported slavery as the status quo   – – and that it was fugitive slaves and free blacks who courageously led the way –  risking their very existence to find a way to live in dignity. It was a proud and haunting feeling being in the very church that housed and defended these illegal and morally just activities.    


Comments on the Tour From Vicki Karant

What a wonderful experience to spend an early spring Sunday at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.  It has played a role in the last two book club selections.  Being inside listening to an enthusiastic historian of the church brought the profound significance of the place and the role of the people who called it theirs into sharp focus.  The sacrifices of those who protected fugitive slaves was present in the walls, the beautiful windows and entire atmosphere.

–Vicki Karant

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

Into the Forest, Out of the Woods

Thoughts on Eric Foner’s

Gateway to Freedom

By Omar H. Ali

As I write these words, having just put my two small children to bed, I think about the privilege that my little family and I have of simply being together, safely, with shelter, without fear of being separated from each other. Less than twenty yards from where I type these words–in the warm and loving comfort of our home–begins the backside of Guilford Forest, a wide sheltering space used during the 19th century by fugitive slaves to find safety, at least temporarily, in what was the southern terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Here, in the very space carved out on the edge of the 250 acres of remaining forest of once anti-slavery Quaker-held land in Greensboro, North Carolina, enslaved African Americans made the decision to run for their lives. Many sought protection in these woods–maroons digging caves for shelter, foraging to sustain themselves–in order not to be separated from loved ones upon hearing news that they themselves were going to be sold away, sometimes into the deep South, where escape was even more difficult. Others, meanwhile, ran into the woods with the hopes of gaining their liberty by starting on their long and arduous journey northwards, towards freedom.

It is with the background of the trees that cast their shadows under the moonlit sky behind me that I think about the ways in which we, as people, have connected with each other during some of the most difficult times, under some of the most difficult circumstances, and over some of the greatest distances. One of those times was the mid-19th century when legalized slavery existed in the nation and nearly four million African Americans were enslaved across the land. How people connected with each other to survive enslavement, escaped it, or worked together with others to undermine it, is a story of epic proportions.

While there have been many books written about the Underground Railroad and its great abolitionist heroes and heroines–Maryland’s Harriet Tubman, North Carolina’s Levi Coffin, and New York’s Jermain Loguen, among others far more courageous than I can only begin to imagine–the discovery of a new primary source, a manuscript entitled “Record of Fugitives,” a first-hand account of events in 1855 and 1856 by the New York City-based journalist and railroad operative Sydney Howard Gay, offers critical new insight.

Based on this document, and many others, Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner reveals the ‘hidden history’ of the people–black and white–who created and used the series of local networks along the eastern seaboard of the United States stretching from the Upper South through Upstate New York in his latest book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.


As Foner notes in an excellent interview on NPR much of the information we have about the Underground Railroad (specifically, the Eastern Underground Railroad) comes from accounts that took place decades after the events–by which time many details were forgotten and possible embellishments were infused into memoirs. By contrast, Gay’s document gives us the voices of the men and women who came through his office and described in detail the things they had just been through, the people they met, and who they were themselves.

 Among the people Foner helps to reveal in his book (via Gay but in conjunction with a Baltimore Sun escaped slave advertisement)–and who I can’t stop thinking about as I check on my little ones near me–is Emiline Chaplin, a twenty-six year old fugitive slave, a slender woman of dark complexion, a mother and a daughter, with a slight stammer, perhaps still shaken, who, with extraordinary courage, grit, and determination, managed to escape with her two small children …


There is much to be said about the rich and evocative history that Foner presents to us–the ways in which people escaped by carriage, by boat, by foot, and sometimes by train, under the most difficult conditions, the important role of the New York Vigilance Committee in helping fugitive slaves in the 1830s, the fears and joys that people expressed about their journeys, such as the elation of Henry “Box” Brown upon his dramatic emergence from the wooden crate he had daringly placed himself into, and the tenacity of both those who escaped and those who helped them escape, from black sailors and dockworkers to white Quakers and other anti-slavery activists.

For me, the story of the Underground Railroad somehow became much more personal in reading Gateway to Freedom. On many levels the book is personal, as its author, Foner, is one of my dearest professors, who supervised my doctoral dissertation on the Black Populists over a dozen years ago at Columbia University and taught me not only the historian’s craft but, as importantly, the craft of teaching. But the book is also personal in that Foner brings out that which is hidden and helps to connect many voices, people, and their efforts into a seamless whole–even acknowledging how so much of the Underground Railroad networks were disparate. Lastly, the book is personal in that it connects me to the efforts of people, then and now, who tried and try to make social change in the best ways we know how–with courage, compassion, and creativity, knowing that we are part of a much larger history.


In reading this book, I feel close to all of these extraordinary women and men, to Professor Foner, Emiline Chaplin and her children, and to the great woods that connect me to all of us.

Dr. Omar Ali was recently appointed the Interim Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He serves on the Board of Directors of IndependentVoting.org.

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter.  November 2014

Omar Ali touring the Guilford Forest with students from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Quaker scholar Max Carter. November 2014

Reader’s Forum–Harry Kresky

Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad is inspiring.  It tells the story of Americans, black and white, working together to protect slaves who fled north to escape bondage.  In New York City, Foner’s focus, fugitive slaves were prey to bounty hunters sent north by their owners to seize them and take them back to slavery under

Harry Kresky speaking on "Can we make political reform popular with the American people?".  A panel at the National Conference of Independents, 2015.  Pictured with Chad Peace, Independent Voter Network (l) and John Opdycke, President, Open Primaries (r).

Harry Kresky (c) speaking on “Can we make political reform popular with the American people?”–A panel at the National Conference of Independents, 2015. Pictured with Chad Peace, Independent Voter Network (l) and John Opdycke, President, Open Primaries (r).

the country’s “fugitive slave laws.” When legal measures failed – as they often did – anti-slavery activists sometimes physically intervened to liberate captured men, women and children (some of whom had already been legally freed but could still bring a good price on the slave market) and helped them move north to upstate New York, New England and Canada.  This militancy hastened the end of slavery, and forced the hand of the slaveholding south by demonstrating, in Lincoln’s words:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.  I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.  Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”

It is significant, in my view, that the impetus to Foner’s book was the discovery by Madeline Lewis, one of his Columbia College students (who also worked as the Professor’s dog walker), of a contemporaneous document that described in great detail the efforts of Howard Gay and others to protect fugitive slaves and help them continue on the road to freedom.  Scholarship, searching the archives, can be the impetus for creative and politically important literary efforts.

Thank you Eric Foner and thank you Madeline Lewis who, like me, abandoned scholarship to become a lawyer.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters.

P4P Conference Call

With Eric Foner

 Sunday, April 19th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#


Readers Forum–June Hirsh

When I first began reading Gateway To Freedom, I was struck by many historical facts that were little known to me, which debunked assumptions I had, in particular, New York City’s role in the experience of fugitive slaves and the leadership role played by fugitive slaves in concert with the Underground Railroad (UR) that was the “gateway to freedom” for millions of slaves.

Gateway To Freedom brought to mind Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was an earlier P4P Book Club choice.  Like Wilkerson’s book, which showed how the migration of six million blacks who left the Jim Crow South from the 1920’s to the 1960’s planted the seeds for the nascent Civil Rights movement, in Foner’s account the UR and the fugitive slave movement set the stage for the Civil War and the end of institutionalized slavery in the US. They each carried out heroic acts that aided immediate survival and reflected dreams of living life with dignity, playing seminal roles in future efforts to end slavery and fuel the Civil rights movement.

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Independent Voting activists Natesha Oliver and June Hirsh (r) at the National Conference of Independents, March 2015

Foner’s compelling narrative has changed my understanding of the UR. Both the historical content and his beautiful writing style transport me, giving me new ways of seeing an enormously significant, painful and heroic piece of American history that I had not fully imagined or appreciated.

Looking back I realized that the very first sentence of this book “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American tasted freedom on September 4th, 1838 when he arrived in NYC as a 19 year old fugitive slave” did not stay with me as I proceeded on. This Black American’s name was Frederick Bailey.  Upon arriving in NYC a free man, he changed his surname to Johnson. When he subsequently realized that enormous numbers of Blacks took the last name Johnson, he chose once again what was to become his final surname – Douglass.  “The 19th century’s most celebrated Black American” as it turned out was Frederick Douglass – even retelling this now gives me goose bumps. Douglass spoke of fugitive slaves as “freedom’s swift winged angels” and said that “knowledge was the pathway from slavery to freedom”.

Foner re-visits and debunks another popular myth about the UR. It was not a formal institution but in fact a network of abolitionist groups – sparse in some areas, in others highly organized. Although in some cases it did aid dramatic escapes, the UR was primarily focused on assisting fugitive slaves who had already escaped from their bondage and reached the north on their own. Many fugitive slaves developed detailed plans of escape, at times were captured, escaping again and again. Many had friends and relatives waiting for them and had arranged jobs in different cities, in Canada and elsewhere.

A number of eastern newspapers labeled abolitionists and fugitive slaves as “dens of negro thieves and fugitive protectors”.  Southern papers wrote that associations of abolitionists “first business is to steal or cause to be stolen, seduced or inveigled, slaves from southern plantations; to steal him from an indulgent master – to carry him to a cold, strange and uncongenial country and there leave him to starve, freeze and die in glorious freedom.” The same periodicals even proclaimed that slaves “escaped” and fled back to their plantations and masters. The outrageousness of these claims was exposed by slaves themselves who at great risk to their lives and newfound freedom, spoke eloquently and forcefully at public meetings of UR supporters and potential donors, even baring their physical scars.

Between 1830 -1860, 1000-5000 slaves escaped slavery per year. In fact, this was not a substantial number given that by 1860 the US slave population was 4 million.

Not long after escaping to NYC, Frederick Douglass was urged by abolitionists to leave. Unlike upstate NY, New England and parts of the Midwest where the anti-slavery movement flourished, NYC was not a safe place for fugitive slaves. A port city, it had economic ties to the cotton industry and to the slave south. Especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, few blacks could safely remain.  This law created an environment where fugitive slaves were more easily rounded up, and sold back to their former slave owners. This law also led to an epidemic of the abduction of the children of Free Blacks. Kidnapped right off of the streets of NYC and other states with southern ties, they were sold into southern slavery – never to be seen by their families again. Pro-slavery circles saw this as a necessary business venture. A NYC abolitionist named Ruggles was a prime mover in the NYC Committee of Vigilance that was founded solely to combat this epidemic of child kidnapping.

Organized slavery did not come to an end in NY until 1827.  Following the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act thousands of Black Northerners fled to Canada. Ironically this was the same period when thousands of immigrants entered the US via NYC to escape religious and political persecution and seek economic opportunity – their gateway to freedom. This heinous and draconian law exposed the lie of the US as an asylum for those denied liberty in other countries. Following its enactment Northerner’s with no ties to the UR were forced to face and question the relationship between their conscience and obligations to the law. Many, even those who hated slavery, felt they must respect the law and override sympathy for fugitives.

Foner shares a telling quote of Abraham Lincoln as an example.  Lincoln hated “to see the poor creatures hunted down” but out of reverence for the rule of law “I bite my lip and keep quiet.” Later, in 1861, Lincoln devoted a portion of his first Inaugural address to the question of fugitive slaves and proposed changes in federal law that would secure greater legal rights for accused runaways. The fugitive slave issue, the crucial leadership role that fugitive slaves and free Blacks played, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad, all played key parts in leading Americans to face the moral and economic issues of slavery and opening the door to the Civil War.

As an organizer who has been immersed for many years in building a national grass roots movement of independents for political reform (IndependentVoting.org) I’m moved by the many past organizations, movements, and courageous individuals who fought to end slavery, for civil rights, human rights, for fairness and democracy; for the rights of all people to live in dignity.

I particularly appreciate Foner’s focus on a crucial aspect – base building. He highlights a significant activity of the UR. It carried out the unglamorous day to day grass roots organizing; fundraising, political and legal actions, writing, lecturing, not always underground – sometimes organizing in full view. As a matter of historical fact, says Foner, the UR’s strategic perspective was devoted to bringing about the end of slavery – rather than assisting fugitive slaves, and by its work, created a basis for organized resistance.

The ways in which Eric Foner has laid the groundwork to share this history is a measure of how his book continues to impact me. I’m glad to offer some of my initial impressions. I’m excited to hear from other P4P Book Club readers and of course, I look forward to our conversation with Eric Foner, led by Cathy Stewart.

June Hirsh is an organizer with IndependentVoting.org.  She lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

After Words with Eric Foner


Eric Foner talked about his book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, in which he examines the efforts of free blacks and white abolitionists to secure freedom for fugitive slaves during the mid-19th century. In his book, the author recounts the development of the New York Vigilance Committee in 1835 as protection against slave kidnappings that occurred in New York City. This group spawned similar organizations throughout the North and ultimately lead to a network that secured the freedom of over 3,000 slaves. He spoke with Edna Greene Medford, chair of the history department at Howard University.

Hope you will listen to the video below.

Edna Greene Medford, Chair of the History Department at Howard University interviews Eric Foner

Edna Greene Medford, Chair of the History Department at Howard University interviews Eric Foner








Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

Tapping the Past

The current book selection of the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club is Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. The book is a fascinating look at the antislavery movement in New York City from the colonial era to the eve of the Civil War.

Sunday night as I made calls to let people know about the book and our April 19th conference call with the author I was really inspired that almost everyone I spoke to from Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania proudly told me of a stop on the Underground Railroad in their state or nearby town. To quote Foner “At a time of renewed national attention to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, subjects that remain in many ways contentious, the underground railroad represents a moment in our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.” (Page 15)

Dr. Jessie Fields at “Partnerships for Independent Power” March 2015

The book includes information from a newly discovered historical document: the detailed records of the abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay who helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in New England and Canada.  Gay’s Record of Fugitives, which he kept in 1855 and 1856, was discovered by an undergraduate history major, Madeline Lewis, as she was looking through Gay’s papers held at Columbia University. The discovery of Gay’s notebook has opened up the previously unknown history of the work of the Underground Railroad in New York City.

One of the most important movements that helped to undermine slavery, of which many powerful examples are given in the book, was that of slaves who were determined to be free and ran away. The renditions (recapture) of fugitive slaves in the North (which many violently opposed) raised serious questions about the extent to which the laws of slave states “extended” into the North and the relationship of the Constitution and the Federal Government to slavery.

“But the actions of fugitive slaves exemplified the political importance of slave resistance as a whole and raised questions central to antebellum politics, understood not simply as electoral campaigns but as the contest over slavery in the broad public sphere.” (Page 22)

The existence of the Underground Railroad and the escape of more and more slaves, which was more possible from the southern states immediately bordering the North, exacerbated growing sectional tensions that increased with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and eventually led to the Civil War.

“…Gay’s record makes clear that by the 1850s New York had become a key site in a well-organized system whereby escaping slaves who reached Philadelphia from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia were forwarded to Gay’s office and then dispatched to underground railroad operatives in Albany, Boston, and Canada.” (Page 10)

The long battle against slavery and the participation of ordinary people is fundamental to how our democracy was build. The struggle for full voting rights in America is steeped in the history of the fight for freedom in America. Gateway to Freedom is a wonderful immersion into this history.

–Dr. Jessie Fields

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.


Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST





Why Reconstruction Matters

The New York Times

SundayReview | OPINION

MARCH 28, 2015

THE surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, 150 years ago next month, effectively ended the Civil War. Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, the turbulent era that followed the conflict. This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label “relevant,” it is Reconstruction.

Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.

Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy. For decades, these years were widely seen as the nadir in the saga of American democracy. According to this view, Radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights. The heroes of the story were the self-styled Redeemers, who restored white supremacy to the South.

A caricature of President Andrew Johnson’s 1866 veto of a bill to create the Freedmen’s Bureau. CreditCorbis

This portrait, which received scholarly expression in the early-20th-century works of William A. Dunning and his students at Columbia University, was popularized by the 1915 film “Birth of A Nation” and by Claude Bowers’s 1929 best-selling history, “The Tragic Era.” It provided an intellectual foundation for the system of segregation and black disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction. Any effort to restore the rights of Southern blacks, it implied, would lead to a repeat of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction.

HISTORIANS have long since rejected this lurid account, although it retains a stubborn hold on the popular imagination. Today, scholars believe that if the era was “tragic,” it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.

Reconstruction actually began in December 1863, when Abraham Lincoln announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union. Lincoln granted amnesty to most Confederates so long as they accepted the abolition of slavery, but said nothing about rights for freed blacks. Rather than a blueprint for the postwar South, this was a war measure, an effort to detach whites from the Confederacy. On Reconstruction, as on other questions, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. At the end of his life, he called for limited black suffrage in the postwar South, singling out the “very intelligent” (prewar free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy.

Lincoln did not live to preside over Reconstruction. That task fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. Once lionized as a heroic defender of the Constitution against Radical Republicans, Johnson today is viewed by historians as one of the worst presidents to occupy the White House. He was incorrigibly racist, unwilling to listen to criticism and unable to work with Congress. Johnson set up new Southern governments controlled by ex-Confederates. They quickly enacted the Black Codes, laws that severely limited the freed people’s rights and sought, through vagrancy regulations, to force them back to work on the plantations. But these measures aroused bitter protests among blacks, and convinced Northerners that the white South was trying to restore slavery in all but name.

There followed a momentous political clash, the struggle between Johnson and the Republican majority (not just the Radicals) in Congress. Over Johnson’s veto, Congress enacted one of the most important laws in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, still on the books today. It affirmed the citizenship of everyone born in the United States, regardless of race (except Indians, still considered members of tribal sovereignties). This principle, birthright citizenship, is increasingly rare in today’s world and deeply contested in our own contemporary politics, because it applies to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.

The act went on to mandate that all citizens enjoy basic civil rights in the same manner “enjoyed by white persons.” Johnson’s veto message denounced the law for what today is called reverse discrimination: “The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Indeed, in the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.

Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution “for white men” to one “for mankind.” It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.

In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.

The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.

It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.

One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South.

By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as South Africa and Australia to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America,” saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.

While violated with impunity, however, the 14th and 15th Amendments remained on the books. Decades later they would provide the legal basis for the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.

Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.

NY Times Review of Gateway to Freedom


‘Gateway to Freedom,’ by Eric Foner

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